Leviticus in Context

Dr. Jason Garwood

Narrated By: Scott Tucker
Book: Outside the Camp
Topics: , , ,


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Chapter Text

Leviticus 13 & 14 is a long text so I’m going to assume that you’ve read it before moving on from this point. Before digging into some of the details of these two chapters, I’d like to zoom out and see Leviticus as a whole in relation to the rest of the Bible, specifically as it relates to the rest of the Pentateuch. When it comes to covenant theology, I believe that Ray Sutton’s developments[1] are more than adequate to assist us in grasping the significant issues at stake when God makes covenant with His people. We should, at this point, make sure it is understood that history is marked by covenant, which is to say, covenant-making is God’s way of managing the history that He created and actively superintends.

Let me put this another way. The progression of history looks like the following, and we get this from the five books of Moses—and it goes into the rest of the Bible as well. First, God announces His intentions: this includes judgment on the old, and the promise of something new.  Genesis tells us this story. The self-existing, absolute God who is and has always been, trumpets His will by calling forth all of existence: “Let there be.” Second, God redeems His people out of the old creation and into the new creation, what we call an exodus-redemption. Exodus tells us this story. God’s mighty hand reaches down and moves everything along. Third, God establishes His people in the new world as a new-construction house with accompanying covenantal demands based on the aforementioned covenantal promises; that is, God establishes His law as a path for sanctification and the standard for righteousness and justice. Leviticus tells us this story. Fourth, depending on how His people do in the new-construction house/creation, there are sanctions—the application of the demands—which include further blessing or cursing. Numbers tells us this story. And lastly, God brings the judgment to purify His people out of the old creation in order to establish them in the new creation (which is precisely where we started). Deuteronomy tells us this story. If you want to understand what God is doing in history, this is a helpful way to look at it. Think of this as a “You Are Here” arrow on the map at the rest stop.

There are some, however, who see redemptive history in the following way: Creation, Man, Sin, Redemption, and Restoration. This is undoubtedly a sober sequence of events that marks biblical history. But it doesn’t necessarily get into biblical law or covenant theology proper. Here is where Sutton’s analysis becomes slightly more effective, at least in uncovering more covenantal dynamics. Sutton summarized the covenant with five different aspects that can mnemonically be spelled out with the Greek word for God, THEOS. 1) Transcendence (God establishes His sovereignty in the relationship as a suzerain); 2) Hierarchy (God redeems, reorders, and then establishes the covenantal patterns whereby men must act—including the establishment of ecclesiastical, familial, and societal authorities/jurisdictions. Man is the vassal); 3) Ethics (God puts His law in the center of His people and they are to gather around it, learn from it, implement it, and warm their hands by it); 4) Oaths (God attaches to His covenant a true, not false, oath: a sworn allegiance to God and God alone,[2] with a convoy of sanctions in tow that consist of blessing and cursing[3]); and 5) Succession (God explains covenant succession and dominion and the plans for the restoration of the cosmos from generation to generation—an unfailing covenant in perpetuity).

Now, the reason I’m bringing all of this up on the front end is because Leviticus 13 & 14 must be seen in this covenantal context. To eschew the context citing its irrelevance to modern-day Christianity would be a colossal mistake, as we’ll see shortly. But before we really dig into those two chapters with specific exegetical remarks, I want to zoom-in only a bit closer and spell out more of the context of those chapters in relation to the others.

Leviticus 1-7 outlines the specific sacrificial offerings of the Israelite congregation: burnt offerings (ch. 1), grain offerings (ch. 2), peace offerings (ch. 3), purification offerings (ch. 4), compensation offerings (ch. 5), and more compensation offerings (ch. 6). The first three chapters/offerings pertain to man’s relationship to God directly. The purification offering in chapter four deals with the pollution of the house of God, the tabernacle. In 5:15-19 we see the compensation offering correlating with theft (intentional or not), and in 6:1-7 it deals with perjury and false oaths against one’s neighbor. The first chapters of Leviticus are laid out in conjunction with the five-point covenantal model of recreation, and it should not be surprising that the last part of chapter six (going into chapter seven) deals with the priests and their successive role in the covenantal economy (succession).

In chapters 8-10 we have the theme of a “new Adam” coming into play as Aaron and his sons play a central role in putting away the old creation and ushering in the new. They are anointed with oil (a symbol of the Holy Spirit) and so is the tabernacle; after all, God will dwell among His people. Perhaps the most infamous of situations was the strange, presumptuous fire of Nadab and Abihu (10:1-2). These two failed to guard the sanctuary and thus the holiness of God. They were of their father Adam who failed to guard the Garden.

Leviticus 11-16 is a section that revisits the curses of Genesis 3.[4] In order for the Israelite congregation to become the new Adam they were called to be, they needed to have a sober reminder of who they were and who they are to become. They are sons of Adam, but they have been given the covenant by grace (cf. Ex. 20:1-2). Having been established by Father-Yahweh as His newly acquired (redeemed) son (Ex. 4:22-23), Israel was to obey the terms and conditions of the covenant as a new Adam, a new creation, by grace through faith (Deut. 30:11). In the Mosaic economy, grace and faith are the paradigm of redemption; the sacrifices and judgments were there to remind them of sin and point them to Yahweh their only hope. In short: they were sons and daughters (Adams and Eves) who anticipated and looked forward to Jesus the True Israel, the True Son of Father-Yahweh. The curses and judgments were there to help keep this perspective and move them along in covenantal history, teaching them (like us) to live by grace through faith.

Ceremonial issues of “clean” and “unclean” must be seen in this light. Clean does not necessarily mean “without sin,” nor does unclean necessitate that we view this status as “sinful.”[5] Clean/unclean is not synonymous with holy/sinful. Clean/unclean is also not synonymous with healthy/sick. Rather, “clean” meant ceremonially set apart as positively sanctioned and blessed, and “unclean” meant ceremonially set apart as negatively sanctioned and cursed. The judicially declared state of “uncleanness” meant that the person or object or place was under the judgment of God. These are the effects of the fall and the subsequent curses of God. To be cleansed (either with ceremonial washings or sacrifices) was to be restored from this state of cursing and sin; it meant being delivered from the curse of the fall. If the status of “unclean” meant judgment, the status of “clean” meant deliverance. That said, let’s consider this section a bit more.

The literary structure of Leviticus 11-16 is as follows:[6]

  • Leviticus 11 — Food laws: Transcendence. This harkens back to the original sin of idolatry in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve had partaken of the forbidden “food.” This was a violation of the First commandment: thou shalt have no other gods. In covenanting with the serpent (who travels in dirt), Israel was forbidden from eating those animals associated with traveling in dirt—a reminder of that great animal-dragon, the satan. The first judgment of Genesis 3 was against the serpent.
  • Leviticus 12 — Childbirth laws: Hierarchy. We are reminded that after Adam and Eve sinned, there was a restructuring of the covenant. Sin had entered the world and man had ostracized himself from God’s presence. The generations that followed would be marked (circumcision) by the perpetual need for deliverance. The war would be between the righteous and the unrighteous, the seed of Eve against the seed of the serpent. Only Christ the Dragon-slayer would deliver them (us) from this predicament. The second judgment of Genesis 3 was the distress of childbearing, hence the laws here. (The first and second commandments rule out humanism as a viable religious option for men.)
  • Leviticus 13 — Laws about leprosy: Ethics. The leper is someone who is guilty before God. The third judgment in Genesis 3 pertained to the man, Adam. This cursing of Adam meant that Adam would work by the “sweat of [his] brow.”[7] To be stricken with this dusty, sweaty, skin disorder was to be judged (literally “plagued”) for egregious sin. The outer skin-plague was a manifestation of what was on the inside of man. We are reminded that in 2 Chronicles 26:16-19, King Uzziah, who was a corrupt leader, had leprosy break out on his forehead. The leprosy informed the person that he was under the judgment of God, the same judgment of sweat and dust that Adam himself had undergone. The leprosy pointed to the ethics of the law of God and man’s responsibility to fulfill his obligations of the covenant. To refuse obedience was to incur a visible reminder that we are but dust, and to dust we shall return.[8] Who will deliver me from this dust-condition? The God of resurrection.
  • Leviticus 14 — Cleansing the Leper: Oaths. God provides a path forward for the man who is but dust. Because this isn’t a case of biological contagion that spreads from person to person, there is no medicinal component to the treatment plan. The sin had to “surface” a certain way, and this is because confession, repentance, and restitution is a process that must be worked out each step of the way (all are requirements to healing). Here we note that “cleansing” is not the same as “healing.” The issue is ceremonial: atonement had to be made in order for the uncleanness to be carried away. One bird was ceremonially killed, the second bird carried the sin away (v. 4-7). Oil was placed on the right ear, right thumb, and right big toe (v. 14) just like the priest had done in 8:23 (cf. Ex. 29:20). The leper is now a priest again and is no longer under the curse of the third judgment; he may return to the rest of the priests in the nation. The other aspect to this passage is the fact that the house is cursed as well (v. 33-57). The “house” obviously refers to Adam and Eve being judged and losing their Garden-house (succession). If there’s a mold-like problem spreading out and affecting the walls and garments (another Genesis reference), then the house is to be torn down (which is what happened to Jerusalem and her temple in A.D. 70). Man and his institutions are but dust and they, too, can be judged and brought to nothing.
  • Leviticus 15 — Bodily Discharge Laws: Succession. Adam and Eve are naked and ashamed, no longer in the Garden, and thus they reproduce in order to rather limply fulfill the dominion charter. The discharge laws taught Israel that like their father and mother, Adam and Eve, they, too, have “shame” in the private parts of their bodies. The point of these judgments is to keep the house of God clean and undefiled (15:31). Why? Because when God lives with His people, they are to be holy just like their Father.
  • Leviticus 16 — Day of Atonement: Succession & Restoration. This is where Leviticus has been heading all along. In order to purify the aforementioned sins and judgments, atonement must be made. Here God provides a sacrifice (just like that which was promised in Genesis 3:15) in order to restore His people. All sins, known and unknown, intentional and unintentional, are hereby blotted out. The prior year’s sins have a covering and now await God’s final judgment, what we see at the cross of Christ.

The goal of Israel’s redemption is holiness and the blessings of the covenant. Yet, sin still shows up and God still judges. The point of Leviticus 11-16 is to remind Israel that they must be a new Adam. They must not walk the way their father Adam had walked. They must not align with the serpent, creating a faulty covenant built on sinking sand. To sin in this way was to commit spiritual adultery (the 7th Word). This behavior is detestable and contemptible: it is harlotry and high-handed rebellion against the kingdom of God. Keep in mind that not everything was a “sin” per se. Some of it was simply God’s prescription for holiness until His Son would come to cleanse us permanently. To be sent “outside the camp” is to be cast out of the Garden of Eden all over again—a reversal of the Exodus, a going back to Egypt. Yahweh’s prescription for Israel is a careful approach to all of life, one of faith and trust, one of repentance and restitution, all of which pointed to the gospel. The “law was our guardian until Christ came” (Gal. 3:24).

[1] Ray R. Sutton, That You May Prosper: Dominion by Covenant (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1987).

[2] cf. Leviticus 19:12; Matthew 5:33-37.

[3] Deuteronomy 28 & Leviticus 26.

[4] I am indebted to James B. Jordan for his tremendous insight on this particular point. https://theopolisinstitute.com/podcasts/episode-403-clean-and-unclean-in-leviticus/

[5] Sexual intercourse inside the covenant marriage is not a sin, however, it did make one ceremonially unclean until the evening sacrifice (Lev. 15:18).

[6] I’m relying on and building upon Jordan’s observations here.

[7] Jordan notes that the High Priest wore a golden plate on his forehead in order to cover up the sweat so God would not be offended. (See Exodus 28:36-38.)

[8] It’s worth noting that not everyone who disobeyed God was stricken with “leprosy.” And it is true that not everyone who was stricken with leprosy did so as a direct judgment for sin. In the sovereign will of God, this condition was administered as a visual reminder for the community, that they were to be holy, and they were not hide from the Lord, but instead be ever present and diligent in repentance and faith towards God and the covenant. I am convinced that those who were afflicted had at least some things to stop hiding from while in the camp.